Last week, as I watched director
Wes Anderson take the stage at Lincoln Center to introduce the premiere of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was struck
by the unusual deep-purple color of his suit. I almost wrote this off as an
inconsequential choice by the famously quirky director. But once the film began
rolling, I realized that Anderson’s colorful attire was actually his subtle
synchronization with the film’s leading character, Monsieur Gustave H. This
character dons the same shade of plum throughout the entire film, and soon I
couldn’t help but see that the similarities between the two went far beyond
their purple garb. The fascinating parallels between Anderson and his leading
man make this film his most soulful and self-reflective work to date.
Anderson’s exploration of this
delightful character gives us a rare glimpse into how the director views his
own world. Gustave (luminously played
by Ralph Fiennes) is the owner of the titular hotel, and his mission is not
unlike Anderson’s as he strives to preserve the particular charms of a world
that is slipping away. Both the director and his fictive concierge create
intricate but impossible worlds in The
Grand Budapest Hotel. Set in the fictional Eastern European state of Zubrowka,
this pink wedding cake of a hotel is at its peak of grandeur. Gustave directs
the Grand Budapest so that it runs like clockwork, working to maintain its
splendor before it fades and falls with the oncoming war.
With idiosyncratic fervor, Gustave—like Anderson—tries to preserve his whimsical tastes despite the realities
around him. We watch Gustave speed through the halls, fastidious in his duties,
upholding comically high standards. One can imagine a similar eccentricity in
Anderson’s creative work, requiring exquisite attention to detail and
everything just so. Indeed, actors from
Anderson’s veteran cast have described the director’s meticulous production
methods as genius, beginning with his own detailed sketches, animations, and even
a suggested reading list for the cast.
It is hard not to see Anderson as a
sort of innkeeper himself, directing life on and off the set with the same
spirit and extravagant standards as Monsieur Gustave H. In a recent interview, cast
member Jeff Goldblum explained how Anderson’s visionary style pervades the
entire production experience. The director, Goldblum said, “wants to make the
shooting an art project of itself.” He described how the entire cast lived
together in the same hotel during shooting and sat down each night for group
dinners, elaborately arranged by Anderson. This custom aligns so perfectly with
the ethos of The Grand Budapest Hotel,
and seems to be a striking union of character and creator for Anderson.
There is a similarity between the two,
as both Gustave and Anderson hold tightly to their peculiar visions of the
world. For Gustave, this vision is the strange splendor of the Budapest in the
face of an oncoming war. And for Anderson, it is the intricate styling of his
own filmmaking, which stands alone in cinema today. Critics often accuse
Anderson of prioritizing his stylized design over substance, but this film is a
sweet exception to this charge. Visually, The
Grand Budapest Hotel is as fantastical and charming as ever. But the story
also reaches new depths, with Anderson articulating themes that are richer and
more complex than his earlier works.
Some of that added complexity comes
from the darker and more realistic forces at work in The Grand Budapest Hotel. In past works such as Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, the opposing powers take the form of adult
authorities. These professors, parents, and scout leaders may clash with the
protagonists, but they are hardly villainous. This latest film, however, deals
with war, brutality, and a fictional “ZZ” unit that unsubtly recalls Nazi
Germany’s SS. The violence is harsher and the darkness comes closer than usual
The effect of these forces’ encroachment
on the playful world of the Budapest is a richer story—still the fanciful
world of Wes Anderson, but one that occasionally snaps the characters back into
a meaningful reality. In the same vein, the character of Gustave is not simply
a caricature. He too comes to life with moments of unfeigned grace. We learn
that Gustave is more genuine and deeply relatable than the shiny purple tuxedo
would initially let on.
One of these endearing traits is
his habit of reciting romantic poetry at length. This meaningful quirk turns
out to be representative of Gustave’s character and, more significantly, of
Anderson’s entire method. As it happens, Gustave consistently chooses the wrong
moment to pause for poetry. He begins forty-stanza poem before dinner, a
dramatic ode while escaping a maximum-security prison, never able to finish his
verses. It is a comical pattern throughout the film, and a fitting one: art
interrupted by a more urgent reality. Anderson portrays exactly this—a world
where there is less and less time for romance, beauty, and whimsy. In spite of
this reality, one man—be it Gustave or Anderson himself—works tirelessly to
uphold the old elegance.
We cannot know how much of himself
Anderson projected onto his leading man, but the resulting film is a triumph.
Anderson is true to his own narrative techniques, and the purple threads that
tie him to Gustave only enrich this: he delves deeper yet into style and
substance, putting a little more of himself into his film.
Kayleigh Butera is
a writer from Philadephia, PA. She is a recent graduate of Brown University,
where she studied American Studies and French language. She worked as the
programming coordinator of Brown’s Ivy Film Festival, the world’s largest
student-run film fest. Kayleigh is currently living in Brooklyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.